State Puts NHL Idea On Hold
Agency Decides On Lengthy Study To Find Best Use For Civic Center

December 22, 2005 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

The Connecticut Development Authority on Wednesday approved a long-term study of the future of the Hartford Civic Center - a vote that puts the short-term hockey dreams of Whalers fans and former team owner Howard Baldwin on hold.

Saying that the building is obsolete, that the Whalers never made money and that the NHL "couldn't wait to get out of town," authority Vice Chairman Richard T. Mulready said that the prudent course is to study the Civic Center's potential - or lack thereof.

There are too many questions before a decision can be made about what to do with the building, Mulready said. The study is expected to take several months.

But the move upset those who were hoping that hockey could return, and that the state would move more quickly to take up Baldwin's offer to take over operations of the Civic Center.

"I'm not surprised that the Connecticut Development Authority basically has decided to turn Hartford sports and entertainment into a bureaucratic quagmire," said House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford. "I can't sit idly by and watch the Civic Center continue to drain taxpayers while the CDA basically sticks their heads in the sand."

Amann said he was frustrated that the authority is ignoring Baldwin - a private investor willing to bring his own money to the table at a time when the state is losing about $4 million a year on the Civic Center.

Amann said that he wants to speak with the governor on the matter, and that he wouldn't rule anything out - from legislative remedies that would "change the authority of the authority," to repopulating the authority's board, to setting up a legislative committee that would be the center's steward.

"We can basically go over CDA's head," he said. "But I'd rather not."

Baldwin said Wednesday that he loves the Hartford market and still hopes to bring an NHL team back to the city. But the authority's vote disappointed him, too.

"Every day and every year and every season that goes by, the job gets tougher to bring the market back," Baldwin said. "What they did today was to take this off the table and defer the problem."

And, he added, the Whalers didn't lose money when he ran the team.

"Mulready - and you can quote me - is full of beans on that one," he said. If the Whalers lost money in the 1990s after Baldwin sold the team, they weren't alone, Baldwin said. "Every team in the mid-90s, except for maybe four or five, was losing money. And a lot of money," he said.

Two issues have made this an interesting time for the Civic Center, which is owned by the city, leased to the Connecticut Development Authority and managed by Madison Square Garden.

First, attendance at Wolf Pack games has fallen just below the minimum required by the authority's contract with MSG. As a result, the state could exercise an option to get out of the roughly eight years remaining on its contract with Madison Square Garden, but it has to do so by mid-January.

Second, the state has been losing, and will continue to lose, between $3.5 million and $4 million a year on the Civic Center. Authority officials say that the annual losses have nothing to do with the contract with MSG, but are the result of rent payments, debt service and capital improvements that must be paid each year.

On Wednesday, Mulready reminded the board that, should it want to, it will have numerous opportunities in the future to get out of its contract with MSG, which runs through 2013. At this point, he said, haste is not in the authority's best interest.

L. Scott Frantz, chairman of the authority's board, defended the authority's move.

"We appreciate [Amann's] interest in the future of the Hartford Civic Center very much; we'd love for him to participate in our analysis," Frantz said. "Our meetings are public, everybody's phone numbers are publicly available and we'd encourage him to give us his ideas directly."

The authority's move also upset Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who wants a bigger seat at the table.

"We got a call this week from [the authority] and I reminded them that, since we own the place, we shouldn't be considered a stakeholder - we should be considered the whole steak," Perez said. "I opposed the fact that a decision is being made [to have a study], and we were not part of that decision."

Frantz said that the mayor should - and would - be involved in any major discussions about the center.

Adding yet another wrinkle to the picture, another potential player emerged Wednesday.

Chuck Coursey, a spokesman for Northland Investment Corp. - the developers of Hartford 21's 262 luxury rental apartments on the site of the old Civic Center mall - said that the company is interested in the future of the Civic Center.

"Do you upgrade the existing coliseum, or do you go out there and build a new one?" Coursey asked. "I think it make more sense to build a new coliseum, and that's something we're also interested in."

"We'd consider becoming an equity investor if that's a path that all stakeholders pursued," he said.